Advancing a Free Society

Why Other States Are A Step Ahead of California

Friday, June 3, 2011

When it comes to operating in the red, no state comes close to California's terrific (that's "terrific", in a negative sense, as in the French le terrible) budget deficit. Arguably, no other state's electorate posseses as great an attention deficit (theories on this vary, from too much sunshine to too many self-centered residents).

But this alone doesn't explain why other states consistently beat California to the reform punch. Here are are a few thoughts as to what else ails the Golden State.

  1. Confused Electorate. Pity California Gov. Jerry Brown. He wants to hold a special election sometime this century -- a referendum on extending tax hikes and cutting spending. A new survey shows the public likes the idea . . . of holding a vote. The same poll says voters would give a thumbs-down to the governor's scheme. Such is the nature of Californians: we vote for high-speed rail and probably won't ride it; we complan about the quality of public schools, yet we allow teachers' unions to snooker us into voting against common-sense improvements; we pass tougher crime laws, but balk at the idea of expanding prison facilities to handle the perp load; we gripe about wastful spending, but bu into restrictive ballot-box budgeting. Complain all you want about the quality of leadership in Sacramento -- it's the confused California voters who have co-piloted the nation-state into a nose dive.
  2. Old What's-His-Name. Continuing on our "pitty Jerry" theme, he also has the unfortunate luck not to be Arnold Schwarzenegger. Only Arnold -- celebrity, camera hound and all-around over-the-top ham -- had the ability to bring Sacramento into folks' living rooms and create more animated political debates (many of which Arnold lost). For other governors, it's more like toiling in anonymity. I spent several years in Sacramento writing speeches for former Gov. Pete Wilson. As a big-time state political fixture (governor and U.S. senator) for the better part of two decades, Wilson was enough of a presence that strangersin malls and arports knew he was somebody important -- just who he was, they often couldn't decide. Just five months into the job, this "everyman's curse" is now Jerry Brown's cross to bear. As Joe Mathews notes in his always-nsightful Prop Zero blog, one-third of Californians believe they don't know enough about what Brown's been up to so as to meirt an informed opinion of his job performance. Much of the blame here has to go to . . . Brown -- for spending too much time hidden away in Sacramento and not enough time on the road, informing the public as to the depth and dimension of California's fiscal despair.
  3. Where's the (Creative) Beef? Earler this week, South Carolina lawmakers finalized a deal with bartering tax incenitves for the promise of job-creation and capital invesment in the Palmetto State. Up north in Rhode Island, the governor and legislators are debating the merits of both lowering and broadening the state sales tax. Meanwhile, Michigan has simplified its tax structure to improve that's state's economic competitiveness. And California? Amidst the current budget impasse, neither Democrats nor Republicans are offering dynamic new ideas. Two suggestions: (1) Republicans should revisit the findings of Schwarzenegger's ill-fatedCalifornia Commission on the 21st Century Economy (what may be dead legislatively might work as a ballot measure); (2) Brown should create another version of the "Ueberroth Commission" that analyzed the mess that was California's post-Cold War economy, providing a roadmap to reform 20 years ago.

Not the most dramatic of ideas, I'll grant you, but the sort of thinking and self-examination that can begin the process of changing California from a lagger to a leader in needed reforms.

(photo credit: J. Stephen Conn)